Does Academia Discriminate Against Conservatives? Unlikely

Thursday, 24 February 2011 08:19 By Paul Krugman, Krugman & Co. | Op-Ed | name.

Does Academia Discriminate Against Conservatives? Unlikely
American conservatives are generally underrepresented in academia. (Photo: Heidi Schumann / The New York Times)

Ideas are not equivalent to race. Yet now and then you hear stories in the United States that treat ideological divides as being somehow comparable to racial discrimination.

At a Jan. 27 gathering in Texas of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the topic of underrepresentation of conservatives in academics came up during a speech given by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia. According to an article by John Tierney for The New York Times, Dr. Haidt noted that polls conducted in the United States show that 40 percent of Americans identify themselves as conservative and 20 percent as liberal. An on-the-spot poll showed that about 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the room identified themselves as liberal.

Dr. Haidt pointed out that conservatives are rare in academia, though their absence is not attributed to discrimination. “Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” he said. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

This is a really, really terrible analogy. And it’s not just because people can choose their political ideology, but not their race. Ideology shapes how a person sees the world and his place in it, which has a direct impact on his choice of profession.

For example, the Navy Times did a survey last year and found that as group, military officers are much more conservative than the population at large. But so what? You don’t see commentators screaming “bias!” and demanding that the imbalance be redressed.

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It’s particularly ridiculous to apply a test of equal representation to the academic fields in which researchers study the very subjects that define the political divide. Surveys show that biologists, physicists and chemists are predominantly liberal. Does this reflect discrimination, or scientists’ tendency to reject a political outlook that denies climate change and is broadly hostile to the theory of evolution?

Now, I don’t mean to say that political bias is absent from the academic world, although the bias itself is inconsistent.

I can well imagine that it’s hard to be a conservative in some social sciences, but in economics, the obvious bias a scholar faces when submitting his paper for review at a major journal is toward, not against, a doctrinaire free-market view. Doing head counts is a terrible way to assess that bias. 

Backstory: A Deficiency of Diversity

The Society for Personality and Social Psychology, with 7,000 members, is the largest organization in the world for social and personality psychologists. And the group places a premium on diversity initiatives and bias studies.

So the group was surprised by a presentation made at an annual gathering in Texas by Jonathan Haidt, a professor at the University of Virginia, that revealed the group’s own bias: between 80 and 90 percent of attendees at the group’s meeting identified themselves as politically liberal, with less than one percent claiming to be politically conservative.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt pointed out in his lecture on Jan. 27. Usually, he explained,

when people see a lack of diversity in the United States, they assume that discrimination is in some way responsible.

Dr. Haidt, an authority on the psychology of morality and ideology, reminded attendees of the process by which some groups become what he calls a “tribal-moral community.” A community that arises around shared sacred values will strive to defend them, he said, often sacrificing observable truths in the process.

This is why it’s easy for social psychologists to cite reasons why there are so few conservatives in their discipline, he told his colleagues.

Social psychology isn’t the only academic discipline dominated by liberals. In a 2007 study, economists Christopher Cardiff and Daniel Klein and sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons found that there are six times as many Democrats as there are Republicans on the general faculties of elite universities in the United States, especially in the humanities and other social sciences.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including "The Return of Depression Economics" (2008) and "The Conscience of a Liberal" (2007).

Copyright 2011 The New York Times.

Last modified on Thursday, 24 February 2011 09:57